Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Reflections of a Shoah Interviewer

December 28, 2011 12:01 am 0 comments

In The summer of 1994 I accepted The Shoah Foundation’s invitation to join the crew of interviewers for a week of work at a Catskill resort hotel. I saw the task as no different from my interview work in the city. The routine was the same: Fill out the questionnaire, get a sense of the person, dig through the reference books, frame an outline in your mind – yet stay open for the unexpected, do not  let your thoughts stray, remember to maintain eye contact. Make sure to have closure before you depart. Take time to decompress.

I too am a survivor. Though I’d gladly forfeit both title and honor. I came to this job as an interviewee, thinking – not without a measure of arrogance – that I was better qualified for the job than many others. Well, why not? These are my people. I speak their languages. We share an Alma Mater – cum laude graduates of W.W.II and the Holocaust. And if their biographies do not exactly match mine, I  know their stories. I have heard them under the stairwells of the DP camp barrack, read them in the lights of my mother’s Yahr-Zeit candles, ingested them with each bite at the family holiday meals.

So what could be the “Unexpected” that I was to stay open to? I kept going over  my training instructions in my head.

My interviewees to be were mostly elderly orthodox  Jews, summering at a bungalow colony near Monticello, New York. They could have been my uncles and aunts. I knew their nightmares as well as their bouts of survivor-guilt, and the refrain to their stories which always came with a sigh: “It wasn’t so bad for me, others had it worse.” – As if it were a contest one would have preferred to have lost.

I  had long since processed my own nightmares. The memories have receded and paled. I have reached an equilibrium. “Mine was truly not so bad an experience, others did have it much worse!” Those were my thoughts as I packed my valise, hit the highway, crossed a few toll-bridges, and headed for my room at the end of a corridor, at Kutcher’s Hotel in the town of Monticello.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. At the temporary office the hotel assigned us, Maura, the coordinator, was labeling video tapes. Rebecca, her assistant was on reception duty. Telephone wedged between chin and shoulder she was taking down notes on a small yellow scribble pad, using her free hand to show me to a chair and point to a tray of pastry swirls. The video crew, off for the day, were unwinding from the trials of the first week of work and getting ready for the week to come. Youngsters in my eyes a bunch of summer camp counselors, chafed from their horse-rides and dripping chlorine-water, they were sharing stories of morning’s adventures. Susan, armed for my response with a sheepish smile, handed me a stack of Xerox forms. “Two, three, four, five….Six?…Six pre-interviews and six interviews in three days?” I barely took a breath between words: “Maura! Rebecca! Are you trying to kill me?” With no time for further protest, I lifted  the  first available telephone, folded back the cover page of the top form  and heard my own voice echo through the receiver: “Good afternoon Mrs. R….., The Shoah Foundation calling……. I am L…..,your interviewer…….”

Others were arriving. I tried to memorize their names by matching them up with their faces:  A woman named Ruth – proud stride,.. the biblical character. Rosalie – delicate, modest, the flower. Clifford – intense and very handsome. Lila – confident, professional; no wonder, she’s a TV Anchor! Elizabeth, was easy to remember – polite – Austrian accent. So these were my teammates. A bit young for the job, I judged, though they were all in their forties. I wondered about Elizabeth, who made it clear she was not Jewish. Given the history of Austria, would the Holocaust survivors trust her? Would I?

My room-mate came on Monday morning. An unlikely duo to share a room I found myself thinking about the two of us as I took in the scene. A corpulent woman in an ankle-length skirt, baggy cardigan and large picture hat, she made  me feel like a nudist with my bare legs and sleeveless summer dress. She threw down her canvas bag and her burgundy bath towel on the bed and in one continuous motion greeted me, introduced herself, and propping herself on a pillow against the headboard, with clip-board and pen,  reached for the telephone on the night table  and announced herself in Yiddish: “My name is  Adele Abolafia…I am your interviewer!.”  Smitten by her melodious,  Lithuanian diction  I followed her word for word through the series of questions: “Your full name? Address… A nickname?… something your parents called you…  Did you have siblings?”

“Did you?…. Did?…. ” The question resonated dissonantly in my ears, though its a standard phrase in our line of work. I hear myself  asking it over and over: “Did you have parents?…. Did you have aunts?…. Did you have cousins?…. Did you have Siblings?…. Did you have Children?….”

The answers pour forth: There once was a town……, a village……, a meadow……, yellow-eyed daisies swaying in the wind……, I wove them into my braids……, plucked at their petals……, he loves me; he loves me not……, a romance……, a love…….  A Yeshiva……, a Rebbe……, My hobbies? Why, learning!……. Orthodox? No……, Our family was Neolog……, Father an academic……, mother also……, brother studying medicine in Vienna……., No he didn’t, didn’t survive……, none of them did……, only myself……. The old ones went first……, mother was forty……, her hair  turned gray early……, silver by the light of the Sabbath candles……, A mass grave, a ditch……,

not even a wood chip to mark off the spot…….  A camp sister we called it……, a barracks adoption – we kept each other warm on the wooden bunk and propped each other up in the snow on the death march……. Maiden name?……, I’m the last……, too bad I’m a woman……, I was only twelve……, do you know what they did to us?…us, little girls?……., Who?…… And who not?……, the Nazis…  the Poles……, the Ukrainians……, sometimes even Russians – our  saviors…….  Yes we did……, did go back after……, after it was over ……, hoping……, searching……, leafing through the lists……. No ……, no one was left……, only a book……, my father’s Gemarah….., found it in the rubbish of our gutted home……, a wisp of his beard stuck on a page……, had a habit of plucking it when deep in thought……. Please pardon my tears……………..

“Please pardon mine. I have no right to weep. To partake of your grief. They stripped you of everything; this at least is your own.”

The room we are taping in is oppressively hot. Ventilation is off. The studio lamps have soaked up all of the oxygen. I have trouble breathing. “What about you, on whom all lights are focused on this hot August day?” my mind is addressing the body on the chair. “You are still for a moment. May I ask you a question? … Dare I violate the sanctuary in your circle of silence? Shall I take off my shoes and cover my head? Your eyes… They’ve turned inward… Where are you now?  Other rooms?  Bolted doors?  Fingernails clawing at a concrete wall:  air……, air please…, air…….”

I lack words of comfort. Only my eyes. They look into yours. “It’s over!” they say. “The interview’s over; the nightmares are not,” I read through the shield of your vacant stare, “the pillow’s my enemy……, the screams in the night……”

“Thanks, thanks for sharing.” I escort a bent figure slowly to the door. Parting is complicated, not easy for either of us. We have retraced the steps through the valley of the dead. For a moment we are kin; I know I’ve been elevated to the position of camp-sibling – one who understands. But we both know I don’t. No outsider does!

At noon I enter the crowded dining room. In the street a delivery truck is screeching to a stop, sending a draft through the links of my spine. The waiters rush by bumping into each other. Cutlery jangling. Metal on metal. A woman at the next table is talking about shoes: The outlet next door is running a sale. “Shoes?……, piles of shoes……, scuffed men’s work shoes……,ladies ballet slippers……, little white booties……” My mind won’t shut off.

Our table, reserved, bears an oak tag sign, SHOAH. My teammates are eating, chewing without interest. I am thinking of turnips. “The peels tasted good, but what a beating I got……,” a soft voice keeps whispering inside my ear.

“How was your interview?”

“Fine, thanks, and yours?”

“The same,” Ruth says, her eyes on her plate.

Our polite pitch for normalcy has a hollow ring. We tell each other jokes. Some of them crude. Like young surgeons after a night of gore. Its 12:45. Fifteen minutes to the next interview. I move through the corridors with the stiffness of the Golem. Don’t think so much… Stay with the task! Keep rehearsing the phrases: “Spell your name please….., the country……, the province……, the town…….”

In the evening we walk. Complain about mishaps: A lost key… a dry pen… Filibuster of thought. We are licking our wounds; also each other’s. Soliciting little morsels of comfort….. The truth is we’re huddling. Like they did. For warmth. We are juggling guilt:

“Should I have asked that?…… Did I rip off a scab?……”

“No, you’ve done right……She has thanked you, hasn’t she?…..Said she felt fine….”

“But what about tonight?….. Do you think she will sleep?”

“Shsh, close your eyes,” says my roommate Adele. Other times I cover her and soothe her to sleep. We bring each other tea and share boxes of Kleenex. She has long accepted my nudist persona, and I her multiple layers of cover-ups. We walk each other around the lake on sleepless nights.. I, in her hat and cardigan over my pajamas, tell her about the cold nights in the Soviet labor camp; she, fanning herself in the August heat, tells me about her parents in the Bielski partisan forests. We talk about camp-sister – concentration camp bonding, sprung from misfortune.

Elizabeth visits. We have formed a trio studying the reference books. Ensconced in the  armchair at the foot of my bed she is poring over an atlas: “Was Zamosc Germany or Russia in September ’39?” she muses over a map.. “That depends whom you ask” I answer playfully. We giggle like school girls sharing a secret. Could it be that we’ve met just three days ago?  We know each other so well.

“My uncle was a Nazi; my grandfather was beaten to death in Dachau,” she answers the question I did not yet dare ask, as she exits the room, closing the door softly behind her.

“I love you, Je T’aime” A velvety voice wafts through the lobby. Susan is on the bench in front of the piano impersonating the singer Edith Piaf. Maura, at her side, is turning the pages for her. It’s Thursday, the last time; our last night at Kutcher’s. Our gear is packed. The studios have reverted to rooms for the weekend guests. A bridge club, we are told. All of us are together now. Clifford is  plucking the strings of his guitar; he has composed a song called “Rebecca and Her Telephone.” Though the lobby is large, all of us are crowding on one  sectional sofa part thigh touching thigh. I’m flooded with feelings of love for all of them. All of the interviewers. Even the ones I don’t know too well. And  the camera crew: Daniel, Nikolai, John, and Ramin – the eyes behind the lens that shared in our pain. The office team: Rebecca, Maura, and Susan – all those “camp-counselor boys” of yore, and the girls who overnight grew into women…nurturing mothers, who laid  hands on our shouldees and brought us water between the shoots. I already miss them – all of my teammates. But especially Elizabeth and my sister Adele.

On the trip back home I try to concentrate on the road signs. I am straining to remember if my plants have been watered. Tonight I’ll be reading a bedtime story to my grandchildren…. Elf kings….., tooth fairies….., waltzing princesses:  “Once upon a time……

there was a town……, a village……, yellow-eyed daisies….. “

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music US & Canada Musician Carlos Santana Maintains Upcoming Israel Concert With ‘Open Heart’ Despite Pressure From BDS Activists (VIDEO)

    Musician Carlos Santana Maintains Upcoming Israel Concert With ‘Open Heart’ Despite Pressure From BDS Activists (VIDEO)

    After supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement failed to pressure rock superstar Carlos Santana into cancelling his upcoming concert in Tel Aivv, the guitarist said in a video message on Thursday that he is excited to return to Israel and promote a “musical message of peace, love and an end to conflict.” “The band and I will bring our open hearts and musical energy that will resonate with your soul long after the last song has been […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Music Coldplay Begins Concert With Broadcast of Charlie Chaplin’s Iconic Speech in ‘The Great Dictator’

    Coldplay Begins Concert With Broadcast of Charlie Chaplin’s Iconic Speech in ‘The Great Dictator’

    British rock band Coldplay started its set at the Glastonburg Festival on Sunday by broadcasting excerpts of the iconic speech Charlie Chaplin delivered in The Great Dictator, the 1940 political satire in which the famous filmmaker/movie star played a Jewish barber. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone,” Chaplin begins his address. “I should like to help everyone, if possible, Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Two Decades Before Cleveland’s First NBA Title, LeBron James Walked Onto a JCC Court

    Two Decades Before Cleveland’s First NBA Title, LeBron James Walked Onto a JCC Court

    JNS.org – The seed for the city of Cleveland’s first professional championship in a major sport in 52 years may have been planted at the Shaw Jewish Community Center on White Pond Drive in Akron, Ohio, nearly 20 years ago. That’s when a tall, lanky kid from Akron named LeBron James walked onto the hardwood court and changed the game of basketball forever. Coach Keith Dambrot, now the head basketball coach at the University of Akron, conducted those sessions that attracted […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit

    North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit

    JNS.org – In 2008, Yoram Honig was a producer and director living in Jerusalem, fresh off his first international hit, when the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) came to him with a challenge: build a film industry from scratch in Israel’s capital. “When we started here, was nothing in Jerusalem,” he said during an interview in his office in the Talbiya neighborhood. Now, the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, which Honig heads as an arm of the JDA, pumps 9 million shekels […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas will wear a leotard bearing Hebrew lettering when she competes at the P&G Gymnastics Championships over the weekend. Douglas’ Swarovski-outlined outfit will feature the Hebrew word “Elohim,” meaning God, on its left sleeve. The Hebrew detailing honors the athlete’s “rich heritage of faith,” according to apparel manufacturer GK Elite, which produced the leotard and released a preview of it on Wednesday. The company said Douglas’ sister, Joyelle “Joy” Douglas, created the Hebrew design. The outcome of the P&G Championships will help […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    Britain’s world heavyweight champion, Taylor Fury, should be banned from boxing for making Nazi-like comments, a former world champion from the Ukraine said on Thursday, ahead of their upcoming match. “I was in shock at his statements about women, the gay community, and when he got to the Jewish people, he sounded like Hitler,” Wladimir Klitschko told British media, according to Reuters. “We cannot have a champion like that. Either he needs to be shut up or shut down in the ring, or […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Hanoch Hecht just made television history; but, unfortunately, he couldn’t have his rugelach and eat it too. Hecht became the first rabbi to compete on the hit show “Chopped,” where contestants are forced to use four random ingredients in their recipes, and have 20-30 minutes to create an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. A contestant is eliminated after each round. Hecht, 32, said that while the dishes and utensils were new, the kitchen was not kosher, so he couldn’t taste […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox singer and entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer is starring in a new Pepsi Max commercial for the company’s campaign in Israel. The commercial begins with a bunch of Jewish men eating at a restaurant, when Schmeltzer walks in and tries to decide what to order. An employee at the obviously Israeli eatery offers him a variety of foods, but the entertainer in the end decides on a bottle of Pepsi. Everyone in the restaurant then joins him, drinking Pepsi Max and dancing to […]

    Read more →